Every American foreign missionary develops incredible exchange rate acumen relative to the average person over time. The average missionary can spout off the top of his or her head the approximate exchange rate of the US dollar against the currency of his or her country of residence, and often, several different currencies. He or she develops incredible calculation ability: in a mere second the person can tell you that 800INR (Indian Rupees) equals about 20USD (United States Dollars). Missionaries understand much more than the average American consumer the day-to-day relevance of exchange rates.
The current US dollar crisis should be of concern to missionaries and their agencies alike. Lately, many people are thinking about the devaluation of the US dollar. In 2002, the euro (EUR) was worth $.86 of the US dollar. On 21 November 2007, the dollar hit a new low of $1.49 against the euro. That is a quarter of the dollar’s value lost in five years.1
Most economic pundits are frantic about the rising costs of imports, falling interest rates which contribute to inflationary pressures, the related subprime mortgage crisis, and increasing skepticism among investors in America and abroad as to the robustness of the dollar. However, the devaluing of the dollar not only impacts firms and consumers; it also affects the nontraditional economies of everyday life, such as the missionary sending “enterprise.”
Most mission agency executives are not trained economists. They are likely not thinking ahead to the potential impact of exchange rate fluctuations on missionary sending and effectiveness. This article was written to help all of us better understand the impact these fluctuations will have on the missionary sending enterprise if these fluctuations do not stabilize. My points are mere estimations; however, they are rooted in basic economic logic. Over time, of course, decreases and increases in the US dollar might counterbalance each other and, if the missionary sending enterprise is able to endure the present financial crisis in America, not much will change. But if either the present crisis continues unabated or the missionary sending enterprise does not have the financial backbone to endure this crisis, the effects will indeed be felt. There are four main effects that are likely:
1. Sending American missionaries abroad becomes relatively more expensive. As a simple example, at the dollar’s peak in 2001, a missionary unit heading to Europe to reach Muslim immigrants might have needed 50,000USD to cover living and ministry expenses; in late 2007, it cost 86,627USD. This, of course, assumes all other variables (exchange rates of other countries, consumer preferences of missionaries, etc.) are held constant.
Put another way, to maintain the same level of ministry as in 2001, the example missionaries to Muslim immigrants in Europe must raise thirty-six thousand more USD due to exchange rate fluctuations. This means more time spent in America traveling, speaking, meeting potential funders, and stuffing newsletter envelopes. In economic terminology, we are speaking of the “real value” of money.
2. The amount of prayer for missionaries likely increases. This is the residual effect of the increase in the price of sending missionaries. People pray for the things to which their money goes. Increased need for funds for Americans living abroad requires either greater giving to missionaries by the same number of funders or greater numbers of funders giving the same mean amount. In the latter case, that means more people giving and praying for missionaries and their ministries. For example, whereas in 2001 you needed one thousand people to give 50USD each to raise 50,000USD, in late 2007 you needed about 1,733 people giving 50USD each to raise at least 86,627USD. An increase in prayer, of course, is exponentially beneficial for the advance of the Kingdom of God.
3. The average standard of living abroad decreases. If the amount of funding and the number of missionaries abroad remain constant, the average standard of living for American missionaries abroad will decrease. If the missionary to Muslim immigrants in Europe raised in 2007 what he or she raised in 2001, he or she had less real income for the sake of living and ministry expenses. Additionally, in countries where the currency is “pegged” to the dollar, such as in Jordan and some of the Persian Gulf countries, inflation due to the dropping dollar also threatens to decrease missionaries' standard of living.
This might likely be a positive development to the extent that missionaries today are living above the average wage of the people they are seeking to reach. I have been in missionary homes in the Muslim world that are far more elaborate than those not only of their ministry targets, but also of the national Christians. Thus, a decrease in the average standard of living would encourage greater appreciation of local lifestyle.
Additionally, it would lead missionaries to consume fewer items (such as Snickers and Dr. Pepper), which are imported for Western expatriates to the unreached world. This would also encourage greater reliance on the Holy Spirit to produce life transformation and kingdom expansion rather than hugely funded programs. After all, what is needed most—namely, the simple act of sharing the gospel in word and deed—comes without any inherent programmatic costs.
4. The opportunity cost for funding missionaries abroad increases. Consider that as the dollar decreases in value classical economics hints that the interest rates will likely fall which, in turn, encourage investment. The idea behind financial investments is that they would yield financial gain in the short or long term. Profitable investments, of course, do not always mean financial gain. The value of an investment is the value placed on the return—financial or non-financial—by the investor.
In the case of funding missionaries, investors realize that, with the exception of tax benefits, there are usually no foreseeable financial gains to be made. Therefore, in pure financial terms, the cost of funding a missionary is not just the amount given to the missionary, but the amount that could have been earned in investing elsewhere. In economic terms, this is the idea of “opportunity cost.” If I give 1,000USD to a missionary or overseas ministry that will likely not yield financial profit for me in the future, the “opportunity cost” of this donation is not 1,000USD. It is what I would have gained investing the money over the next year.
Responding to the Crisis
What can we take of value from the financial crisis? First, we are reminded that the advance of the Kingdom of God and our calling to complete the Great Commission stands unaffected by financial fluctuations. The command of Jesus remains upon us no matter the conditions: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
We are to obey Jesus no matter how great the real cost and opportunity cost. If the present economic drag continues in America, churches will have to make more acute decisions as to where to “invest” their money. In order to maintain stateside lifestyles and fund local ministries at the same amount, continued economic downtuwn might lead churches to give less to overseas missions; less especially if the dollar remains low. This would be a truly unfortunate decision on the part of the church. Our calling is not conditional upon our economic prosperity.
We are also reminded of the sovereignty of God over currency values and over the advance of his kingdom. God is not surprised by the devaluation of the dollar. Nor is God’s promise to bring about the great gathering of all of his people (Revelation 7:9-10) through the means of the testimony of his Church (Acts 1:8) affected by financial crisis.
Financial crises, like all crises, strip away futile hopes in the wisdom of the world (i.e., “money equals power”) and should drive us to greater faith in the promises of God. Where do we place our hope when we send out missionaries and start new overseas projects?
Do we place our hope in the missionary’s social ability, in the new ministry’s strategy plan, in the influence of the new business as mission endeavor, or in the funding available? Or do we place our hope in the unchanging power of the gospel? The dollar will always fluctuate; the value of the gospel and its power to transform individuals and societies never fluctuates. Perhaps God even ordains financial crises to lead us to put back at the center of our missionary endeavors the greatest of all assets and strategies, namely, the gospel.
1. “Losing Faith in the Greenback.” The Economist, 1 December 2007, p. 85. As of 19 March 2008, the euro stands at 1.56USD, another all-time high against the dollar.